Social sciences and the Civil Rights movement

The American Civil Rights movement was (and is) a complex, extended series of events, actions, and interactions in the United States between roughly 1950 and 1970.  (It of course has roots that extend backwards in time through the Civil War and centuries of slavery, and it has consequences that reverberate in American society to the present day.)  There are a variety of causes we can point to as explanations of various important events — the Montgomery bus boycott, the Voting Rights Act, the murder of Emmett Till. And there are signal individuals whose actions played pivotal roles in the period — Orval Faubus, Stokely Carmichael, Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King, Jr. So telling this story requires a complex blend of narrative organization, inferences about personal motives, and reconstruction of existing social relations and structures in various places in the country.  It is perhaps significant that many of the histories of this movement have chosen to focus their stories around the biographies and careers of significant individuals — for example, Taylor Branch’s biography of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Parting the Waters : America in the King Years 1954-63). 

My question here is a limited one: what role can the social sciences play in constructing a history of the Civil Rights movement that contributes to better explanations and better understanding of the period?

Here are several areas of research in the social sciences that seem to be especially valuable for interpreting the history of the Civil Rights struggle in the United States.

Doug McAdam’s Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970, 2nd Edition is an outstanding example of the results of research that have proceeded from the point of view of the methods and theories of sociology. McAdam works within the framework of the sociology of social movements, and his key question is this: what factors encouraged or inhibited social mobilization of the victims of segregation in the 1950s and 1960s?  He offers a “political process” theory of social mobilization:

I will argue that the emergence of widespread protest activity is the result of a combination of expanding political opportunities and indigenous organization, as mediated through a crucial process of collective attribution. Over time, these same factors continue to shape the development of insurgency in consort with one additional factor: the shifting social-control response of other groups to the movement. (2)

McAdam doesn’t proceed in a hypothetico-deductive way, assuming that a theory will permit the researcher to deduce the twists and turns of the history. Rather, he looks at resource-mobilization theory as a reasonably well-grounded account of causal factors that underlie mobilizations of groups in response to their grievances, and he looks to identify the historical conditions that were present that can be teased out as important historical causes of the growth of the movement.  In language he eventually develops further with Tarrow and Tilly, he identifies causal mechanisms that either inhibited or accelerated mobilization (Dynamics of Contention).

Quantitative sociologists have made a different kind of contribution to our understanding of various aspects of racial politics in the United States.  One very good example is the work of Douglas Massey, who has provided throughout a long career a careful quantitative assessment of racial inequality and segregation.  Massey and Denton’s American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass  (1993) is a key contribution, as well as Massey’s later Categorically Unequal: The American Stratification System (link). This work is important because it helps to provide a better understanding of the structure of racial inequality in the United States — the structural conditions within which collective efforts for oppression and emancipation played out.  More descriptive approaches to the situation of race in the post-war period have proven useful as well — for example, Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy Volume 1.

Comparative sociologists also have important contributions to make in the study of the Jim Crow period and the Civil Rights movement.  These researchers have often highlighted the key role played by power and exploitation in many social orders, and the ways in which rulers and ruled have sought to improve their situations within the context of those social relations.  Michael Mann’s writings stand out here, and particularly his study of ethnic cleansing within contemporary societies in The Dark Side of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing. Mann’s analysis of Bosnia and other recent examples provides a model for seeking to delineate and explain the strategic and collective behaviors of people on both sides of the Jim Crow line. And he offers a good example of the ways in which it is possible to combine large structural factors (segregation, exploitation) with local-level behavioral factors (resistance, mobilization).

Another important area of the social sciences that is relevant to explanation and interpretation of the Civil Rights movement is social psychology.  This is the individual side of the study of collective behavior: what motivates people to act as they do in a racialized or unequal society? How do participants in such a society frame the social relations they perceive around themselves? Is there a psychology of domination and resistance that is socially imbued in members of a given society? Measuring racial attitudes and dispositions to behavior is one aspect of this field of study — for example, as summarized in work by Dambrun, Villate, and Richetan here. But social psychologists have also given very fruitful attention to the ways in which racial attitudes and schemata are reproduced in young people — the more developmental side of racial thinking. And some social psychologists like Elizabeth Cole have emphasized the idea of “intersectionality” as a way of understanding people’s political and social identities (link). (There is a good discussion of this approach in Michele Tracy Berger and Kathleen Guidroz, eds., The Intersectional Approach: Transforming the Academy through Race, Class, and Gender.)

This work is important for historians because it provides a more nuanced and empirically grounded set of theories about motivation and identity when it comes to contested social relations like race and gender.  This means that the historian has more ability to interpret the behavior of the participants who emerge in the historical record and whose behavior is sometimes surprising. The concept of intersectionality is particularly useful; since African American women had identities that were both racial and gendered, it is less surprising to find that their behavior did not always correspond to a simple script.

Another area of social science research that is relevant to understanding the Civil Rights era is political science.  Civil Rights struggles generally originated in particular places; but they were often aimed at legislation and constitutional interpretation. So it is valuable to have some research on the institutions and processes of the Congress, the Presidency, and the Supreme Court (as well as state government) in order to be able to piece together the complicated back-and-forth between mobilization and legislation. Abigail Thernstrom’s Whose Votes Count?: Affirmative Action and Minority Voting Rights provides some of this analysis with respect the the Voting Rights Act of 1965. John Griffin and Brian Newman’s Minority Report: Evaluating Political Equality in America is a representative study of the role of race in electoral politics. Dennis Chong’s Collective Action and the Civil Rights Movement is a rational-choice analysis of collective action in the Civil Rights movement.

What these areas of research seem to have in common is that they shed light on some of the mechanisms that may have been in play during the complex history of the Civil Rights movement. Some of these mechanisms are at the local population level — the factors that allowed Montgomery’s African American population to sustain a successful bus boycott. Others are at the individual level — the features of identity and motivation that were present in white and black participants. And yet others are couched at a higher level of organization — the mechanisms of the Congress and Supreme Court, the economic effects of segregation. None of these authors imply that we can replace detailed historical research with theoretical social science applications. But they do support the idea that the findings of the social sciences can shed light on social mechanisms and processes that are not necessarily perfectly evident in the historical sequences under study, and they support the idea that historians can gain a lot by immersing themselves in these adjacent areas of social-science research.

(Here is a nice review article by Aldon Morris, “A retrospective on the Civil Rights Movement: Political and Intellectual Landmarks” in Annual Review of Sociology, 1999.)


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